India's nuclear structure

Page - April 5, 2011


The Agencies

1. Department of Atomic Energy (DAE)

The DAE is the umbrella body that oversees all nuclear technology matters in India.  This includes research and development organisations, public sector undertakings, industrial facilities, grant-in-aid organisations and service organisations (see below), as well as nuclear power plants.

The DAE  was set up in 1954 under the direct charge of the Prime Minister.

2. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)

The Atomic Energy Commission, or AEC, was established in 1958. It is responsible for implementing government policy in all matters concerning atomic energy, as well as creating policy and preparing annual budgets for the DAE.  The AEC has been awarded the full powers of the Government of India to carry out the work of the DAE, with the single exception of its budget, which must be approved by Parliament.  Once its budget is passed, the AEC is not required to consult with or report to parliament for any of its actions.

3. Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB)

The AERB is India’s nuclear safety organisation, created in 1983 to ensure that the use of ionising radiation and nuclear energy in India does not cause undue risk to health or environment.  Its actions are derived from the Atomic Energy Act of 1962, and the Environmental (Protection) Act of 1986.  The AERB is responsible for monitoring all of the nuclear matters that fall under the DAE.  It reports to the AEC.

Any safety and regulatory body should be independent, and indeed the AERB is intended to be so. However, its ability to act independently is compromised by the fact that it is both funded and provided technical staff by the DAE, which means it is controlled in both administration and finance by the nuclear establishment it is supposed to be regulating.  The secretary of the DAE is also always the chairman of the AEC; a cross-link that undermines any authority the AERB would have to report violations.

The AERB is also grossly understaffed. It is currently responsible for overseeing the design and construction of five reactors and the safe operations of twenty already-established reactors, as well as regulation at all other nuclear facilities in the country.  That includes the safe operation of 2409 radiation facilities such as the university research department that sent a cobalt-60 source to a scrapyard in Delhi in 2009.  It has a mere 215 employees.

Institutions under the DAE
Some of the institutions under the DAE are:

  • Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) - India's primary nuclear research facility, based in Mumbai. It has a number of nuclear reactors, which are stated to be used only for India's nuclear power and research programme.
  • Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) – a public service undertaking under the administrative control of the DAE. NPCIL is responsible for implementing and operating the nuclear power reactors in the country. Currently, it operates twenty reactors across India (see map).
  • Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam Limited (BHAVINI) -  established in 2003 for the construction, commissioning and operation of fast breeder reactors in India. Fast breeder reactors fall into the second stage of India’s three stage programme. (make the red text a link to more info on 3-stage programme)
  • Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) – a public service undertaking under the administrative control of the DAE. UCIL is responsible for the mining and milling of uranium ore in India. The firm operates mines at Jadugoda and several other places in Jharkhand.
  • Nuclear Fuel Complex  - an industrial unit of the DAE. It supplies nuclear fuel bundles and reactor core components. The facility manufactures natural and enriched uranium fuel, zirconium alloy cladding and reactor core components.
  • Heavy Water Board – an industrial unit of the DAE. It is primarily responsible for production of heavy water (deauterated water, D2O), which is used as a 'moderator' and 'coolant' in nuclear reactors.
  • Electronics Corporation of India Limited – produces the electronics for India’s nuclear sector.  This includes control and instrumentation products for nuclear reactors, integrated security systems for nuclear installations and instruments for measuring radiation.


Shrouded in secrecy: the Atomic Energy Act, 1962 

The nuclear establishment in India is protected by the Atomic Energy Act of 1962, but this policy framework is unjustified for a civilian nuclear sector devoted to generating electricity.  Under the provisions of the act, the government is permitted to deny information to citizens requesting details of nuclear power plants or nuclear material being used for research or industrial purposes.  In line with this, the DAE does not proactively disclose details of safety measures at nuclear power plants, or of accidents which may occur. Requests for these details from DAE are more often than not denied citing sections 8 and/or 9 of the Act.

The 1962 Act places all activities to do with nuclear energy under the sole authority of the chairman of the AEC.  This includes initiating, executing and promoting atomic energy, controlling its exploration, planning and manufacturing all atomic material and any related hardware in India, and all nuclear research and developmental activities.  

Section 3 of the 1962 Atomic Energy Act awards various powers concerning nuclear energy to Central Government, including:

(c) to declare as “restricted information" any data not so far published or otherwise made public relating to -

(i) the location, quality and quantity of prescribed substances and transactions for their acquisition, whether by purchase or otherwise, or disposal, whether by sale or otherwise;

(ii)the processing of prescribed substances and the extraction or production of fissile materials from them;

(iii) the theory, design, construction and operation of plants for the treatment and production of any of the prescribed substances and for the separation of isotopes;

(iv)the theory, design, construction and operation of nuclear reactors; and

(v)research and technological work on materials and processes involved in or derived from items (i) to (iv);

(d) to declare as "prohibited area" any area or premises where work including research, design or development is carried on in respect of the production, treatment, use, application or disposal of atomic energy or of any prescribed substance;